MINNEAPOLIS – The game of basketball has changed tremendously over the past several decades, but one maxim has remained constant through of all of the game’s evolutions. No matter the era, no matter the level, you’re guaranteed to hear coaches preaching this message to their players: “defense and rebounding win championships.”
For the Indiana Fever, that mantra certainly holds true as they head into the 2015 WNBA Finals against the Minnesota Lynx.
“It is a little cliché, but at the end of the day, those are the facts,” Fever guard Shenise Johnson said before Saturday’s practice at the Target Center in Minneapolis.
At the beginning of the season, all the talk in Indiana was about the Fever’s new offensive system under first-year head coach Stephanie White. White wanted to push the tempo and score more points. She accomplished those goals, as her team jumped from 10th in the WNBA in scoring in 2014 to tied for third this season.
But it took a return to Indiana’s roots as a defensive stalwart for the Fever to capture their third Eastern Conference championship in the last seven years.
Rallying from an 18-point deficit in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against New York, Indiana turned its defensive intensity up several notches in the second half. They held the Liberty to just 20 points after halftime to squeak out a come-from-behind win.
Then in Game 3 in New York, the Fever dominated the game on the defensive end, limiting the Liberty to 51 points and forcing 21 turnovers in a 15-point victory.
Now as the Fever shift their focus to the WNBA Finals (Game 1 is Sunday at 3:00 PM ET on ABC), they know that they face an even bigger defensive challenge against a loaded Minnesota roster.
“Olympians, All-Stars, first picks, they’ve got a little bit of everything,” Fever forward Tamika Catchings said. “So we know it’s not going to be easy.
“For us, (the key is) really just focusing in on what we do best, which is defensive intensity.”
Minnesota’s offensive attack starts with Maya Moore, the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2014. Moore was the league’s second-leading scorer in the regular season, averaging 20.6 points per game. She’s been even better thus far in the playoffs, averaging 27.8 points over five contests.
“She may not beat you with her quickness, but she beats you with her subtleties,” White said on Saturday. “Her shoulder movements, the way that she puts the ball on the floor, the way that she gathers, and then her release.”
Containing Moore is a herculean task in and of itself, but that’s before you even consider her supporting cast. In fact, the Lynx’s roster contains four players from the 2012 United States Olympic team that won a gold medal in London.
Moore is joined in the backcourt by fellow Olympians Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus, while 6-6 center Sylvia Fowles added a new dimension to the team when she was acquired in a blockbuster midseason trade. Fowles is averaing 9.6 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game in the playoffs.
“She adds an inside presence for them,” Fever guard Shavonte Zellous said about Fowles. “I don’t think they really had a dominant 5 like Sylvia…(she) goes to the glass really well and can score on the low block. I think we just have to do a good job of containing her, boxing her out, and not letting her get those offensive rebounds.”
Keeping Fowles off the boards is made all the more difficult by the presence of Minnesota’s fifth starter, no slouch herself.
Forward Rebekkah Brunson is one of the game’s top rebounders. She ranked third in the league in offensive rebounds during the regular season (2.6 per contest) and is averaging 9.2 boards in the playoffs, three of them coming on the offensive glass.
Catchings will have the unenviable task of matching up with Brunson, an offensive rebounding savant. Both Catchings and White said that you have to box out Brunson in unconventional ways because she is so good at reading the flight of the ball and getting to the right position to secure the basketball.
“As soon as you try to box her out, she’s already around you,” White said. “She’s just one of those players that has not only her athletic ability, but she just has a nose for the ball.
“So I just challenged our players that whether you have to face-guard her, whether you’ve got to feel like you’re a lead blocker or whatever it might be, you can’t worry about you getting the rebound.”
Indiana will rely heavily on Catchings and center Erlana Larkins (averaging 7.2 rebounds herself in the postseason, 2.7 of those coming on the offensive end) to neutralize Minnesota’s second-chance opportunities.
But the Lynx’s prowess on the glass also places premium on the Fever’s shot selection on the opposite end of the floor. Since Minnesota rebounds so well, Indiana knows that most of its possessions could be limited to just one shot, so it better be the right shot.
“This is a huge test for us,” Catchings said. “…When you look at the offensive execution, it really is going to be a matter of taking great shots, making sure you don’t turn the ball over…we have to be really smart about executing in the right way.”
The Fever face a tall task in the 2015 WNBA Finals. Minnesota’s deep offensive arsenal presents Indiana with many challenges on the defensive end and their size and dominance on the boards can cause problems on both sides of the court.
But Indiana has proven up for similar challenges in the past. They beat a Minnesota team anchored by Moore, Augustus, and Whalen in the 2012 Finals. They rallied from the brink of elimination in the both the conference semifinals and finals earlier this postseason.
No matter the task at hand, the Indiana Fever are not going to back down. Take Shavonte Zellous’ word for it.
“This team is really focused in and locked in on what we need to do in order to win another WNBA championship,” Zellous said.
The challenge begins in earnest on Saturday.